Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stan Grant's Talking to my country

It is a particularly pertinent time for Minervans to be reading this challenging work.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s issues have been much in the news in the last few days: knockback of their idea of a consultative assembly by the Federal government,  their banning of climbing Uluru from 2019, and in the ‘Conversation’ recently an article on a project to correct a huge omission in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by the addition of many articles about prominent Indigenous members of Australian society since 1788.

Before we started discussing Stan’s book we were shown the literary site called: Writing black.  Edited by Ellen van Neerven, this anthology was developed by the black&write! Indigenous writing and editing project at the State Library of Queensland. We were also encouraged to visit the current exhibition at the NMA called Songlines: Tracking the Seven sisters—a journey into the heart of Australia.

Stan Grant’s polemic is that Aboriginal people have faced a very tough life in the last two hundred years and are still finding it extremely difficult in 21st century Australia. He is a proud Wiradjuri man from Western NSW (ie. Canowindra and region). He discusses his life, his parent’s and grandparent’s struggles with poverty, as well as his teachings and thoughts about his own son’s appreciation of his Aboriginal heritage. He discusses the great hardship and discrimination suffered by his father and grandfather in particular. He remembers fondly his paternal grandmother (a white woman) who struggled greatly with poverty but was always very loving. He intersperses his family history with ponderings on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian history and discusses the many assumptions held by the European society since 1788.

The main assumptions:
  • Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders would die out in the 19th century
  • Modern Aborigines should just ‘move on and forget their history’
  • There was aggression between Aborigines and the invaders from the beginning and his Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people are still fighting a battle against injustices but it has not been properly recognised by non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal love of country is a dominating feature in Stan’s life (as it is for most Indigenous people), no matter where he is in the world.  
  • Lack of formal recognition that Indigenous people have lived here for over 60,000 years is still an issue
  • Aborigines have to accept non Indigenous people as they are so few and have no choice (see page 6)

The book is divided into 10 chapters (and unfortunately they are not labelled by theme). There is a structure, however some of us found it hard to categorise. It is not chronological as he has already written a memoir called: The tears of strangers. Here is a review

Grant’s book is a challenge to read as it made many of us very angry with our ancestor’s treatment of Indigenous people. However racism is still active in 2017 Australia and we all felt very emotional when he talks about the shocking incident in 2015 when the footballer Adam Goodes’ suffered constant ‘abuse and humiliation until he could take no more’ (page 5).  We spent a little time discussing this incident and Goodes’ treatment.

Many of the group discussed incidents where they too had seen open displays of racism against Aborigines. One member made us realise that there is a terrible antagonism held by some Australians who cannot tolerate hearing anything about Aborigines or their issues. Overseas, people are more interested in Aboriginal life in modern Australia but there is great resistance here.

Another member working in a government department has recently done a course in cultural awareness of Indigenous issues and she drew our attention to the ‘sorry’ speech by Kevin Rudd and how that was a significant step in reconciliation. Many Aboriginal people are prepared to forgive us – they do not want to blame us. However that is often not the view of some Australians. Canberrans possibly react in a different way about this issue, possibly because we are more educated.

Stan’s book reminded us of the many other books and speeches over the last 25 years which talk about some of these issues. Such as Carmel Bird’s The stolen generation their stories which is based on the report, Bringing them home.  Also we were reminded of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generation and Kim Beazley’s approach – for instance see this ABC report.

We also briefly talked about Eddie Mabo and the 1992 decision: ‘The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case recognised the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait. The Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788.’

One member has recently been reading Robert Hughes’ Fatal shore and the impact of the convicts on Aborigines and their lifestyle. It was pretty devastating to say the least.

I talked about our recent interaction with the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinder’s Ranges and our enjoyment and education from them in the welcome to country ceremonies and the tours we attended. The welcome to country is becoming much more accepted and recognised as part of normal beginnings of meetings at universities and other institutions too.

Many members had stories to tell of their interactions with Aboriginal people. Some of the memories evoked are not good, such as memories of humpies in the 1960s. Others are more positive, such as a lady known by Deb who was a warm and friendly person in Deb’s early life in country New South Wales.

One difficult idea was raised by a member who mentioned that writer Kim Scott is worried about books in Aboriginal languages. He is worried that the languages may be appropriated by non-Indigenous writers, representing another dispossession. However non-Indigenous scholars and researchers have been working in this area since the beginning of white settlement.

We all admired the language used by Grant in this book. He is angry but the language is not unreasonable. He is trying to explain his emotions in the simplest way possible so that all Australians can understand his feelings. On the dust jacket it states: ‘the book that every Australian should read’. That is a difficult aim for any writer.

We particularly discussed some of the points raised by Grant on page 148:
how many times have I heard that we should forget our history and move on ?…Long term conflict may never have been a viable option for us and this country has been spared the internecine warfare of other lands, but the impact on us is no less real ... I grew to understand that conflict doesn’t end when the guns stop, that its legacy is passed through the generations. 

(This is Epigenetics according to one member.)

Such terrible injustices were suffered by some Aborigines, such as losing their families and even their identity through being part of the stolen generations and taken to missionary establishments and other institutions.

We also discussed some of the present day challenges for Aborigines such as poor hearing and how that impacts upon their whole lives – often preventing them from a good education and subsequent jobs and satisfactory lives.

A difficult read because of the subject matter but very worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another comprehensive write-up Sylvia.

    I enjoyed the hybrid nature of this book - the combination of an argument about what it means to be an indigenous Australian with aspects of memoir. Also, for me one of his main points was that history is the issue, the thing that divides us. He talks about indigenous and non-indiegnous meeting across the gulf of history, the "contest space of our shared past". That really made the who situation so clear.


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